Wilma Mankiller: Governance, Leadership and the Cherokee Nation
Mankiller, Wilma. "Governance, Leadership, and the Cherokee Nation." Leading Native Nations interview series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 29, 2008. Interview.
Ian Record: "Welcome to Leading Native Nations, a program of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona. I am your host, Ian Record. Today I am honored to welcome to the program the world-renowned Indigenous leader, Wilma Mankiller. As many of you know, Wilma was the first ever female chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, serving as her nation's highest leader from 1985 to 1995. She also is author of the national best-seller Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. Perhaps the most notable of her many accolades came in 1998 when then-President Bill Clinton awarded Wilma the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Currently, she serves on numerous organization boards and works with several non-profits to promote community development efforts throughout Indigenous country. Welcome Wilma and thank you for joining us today."
Wilma Mankiller: "You're welcome. Thank you, I'm happy to be here."
Question: "I'd like to start with a question I ask all of the guests on this program and that is how do you define sovereignty? What does it really mean for Native Nations?"
Mankiller: "I think that the sovereign rights of tribes are inherent. And I think that when thinking about that sovereign it's important to remind everyday Americans that tribal governments existed before there was a United States government and that many tribes, including the Cherokee Nation, had treaties with other governments before they had a treaty with the first U.S. colony. So the definition of sovereignty is to have control over your own lands and resources and assets, and to have control over your own vision for the future, and to be able to have absolute, to absolutely determine your own destiny."
Q: "As a follow up, in that realm of sovereignty, how to you define a healthy Native community, what does it look like to you?"
Mankiller: "For me, a healthy community would mean that people would have access to good health care, to education, to all the amenities that are available to a lot of Americans that are not now available to all Native people. But first and foremost I think that in a whole, healthy Native community is a community that still has a sense of interdependence, a community where people trust their own thinking, where people believe in themselves, when people are able to define for themselves what they want for their community, and then have within the community the skills and the ability to make that a reality."
Q: "The Cherokee Nation is the second-largest Native Nation in the United States as you well know, with at last count more than 240,000 citizens, probably more than that now. What challenges does the sheer size of that nation, of your nation, pose to its nation-building efforts, and how does the nation meet those challenges?"
Mankiller: "I think that probably the biggest challenge is just the increasing cultural, social and economic stratification of the population. And so that in a population that size, for example, just culturally, we have in our communities people that are full Cherokee, that speak Cherokee, that have remained close to their culture. On the other end of the spectrum, we have some Cherokee-enrolled tribal members that have never even been to the Cherokee Nation and don't have the same connection to the land and to the community, but are enrolled members and certainly have a right to membership, but are different in the way they think. Economically, we have tribal members that are struggling. I live in a very low-income community, in a county with a very low per capita income. So we have some tribal members that have a very low income and on the other end of the spectrum, we have some tribal members who are extremely wealthy. The fellow who owns the Tennessee Titans is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, for example, and there are many other examples of people like that. So I think the challenges is, one of the challenges with a population that size and that stratified – socially, economically, and culturally – is to try to make sure that you find some common ground for all the people who live very different lives, often."
Q: "You once referred to the Cherokee Nation as a revitalized tribe, stating that, 'After every major upheaval, we have been able to gather together as a people and rebuild a community and a government. Individually and collectively, Cherokee people possess an extraordinary ability to face down adversity and continue moving forward.' Can you dwell on that statement, particularly with respect to the Cherokee Nation's present and recent past?"
Mankiller: "I can, and I believe very firmly that the Cherokee Nation is symbolic of other nations as well because I've seen the same sort of just heroic ability and to hold onto a sense of who we are as a people and rebuild our families and communities and governments again. What I meant by that is if you look back at Cherokee history, even before removal, and all the things that happened to the Cherokee people and the continuous shrinking of the land base and then the tragedy of the forced removal by the United States military from the southeast to Indian Territory. If you look at how our people reacted to that it's pretty amazing. When Cherokee people arrived, the last contingent of Cherokee people arrived in 1838 in Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma, there had been a bitter political division within the tribe over whether Cherokee people should fight to the death to remain in the southeast or participate in that removal. So there was a bitter political division within the tribe. About one-fourth of our entire tribe was dead, that either died on the removal or died while being held in stockades. People had left behind everything they'd ever known in the southeast – places where there were cultural practices, places where their people were buried, places where they had a strong connection with – and watched their homes being raffled off to non-Native settlers. So they arrive with all of that after the removal and yet it's really remarkable to see what they did. What they did almost immediately is they began rebuilding their families, rebuilding their communities, and rebuilding a government in Indian Territory despite everything that had happened. And it's amazing. They built some of the first government buildings anywhere in Indian Territory, which are now the oldest buildings in what is now Oklahoma. They built a Supreme Court building. They printed newspapers in Cherokee and English. They started a school system, one of the first school systems west of the Mississippi, Indian or non-Indian, and they built a school for the education of women which is pretty remarkable for that period of time in that part of the world. And so that spirit that allowed them to go through that kind of tragedy and pain and division and yet, keep their vision fixed firmly on the future I think is what I meant when I said that we're a revitalized tribe. And then after the Civil War, the Cherokee Nation was attacked by the United States Government, and various laws – the Curtis Act, the Dawes Act, our land was allotted – and we again faced another major upheaval. And so, between the early 1900s and the early "˜70s, we were not electing our own tribal leaders. And what's remarkable is that in my grandfather's time – and my grandfather's name was John Yone (sp?), 'Yone' means 'bear' (Mankiller) – in my grandfather's time, nobody ever, no Cherokees ever gave up the dream of having their own tribal government again. In my grandfather's era, they would ride horses to each other's houses and the Cherokee people, they would collect money in a mason jar to send representatives to Washington to tell them that we had treaty rights and we had rights to our own self-governance. So that's what I mean, I think, when I talk about the spirit of survival and the tenacity of Cherokee people and their just abiding commitment to maintaining a sense of community and a sense of tribal government."
Q: "Let's turn now to your personal story. Reflecting on your experience, first of all living in an impoverished neighborhood in San Francisco in the 1960s, you once said and I quote, 'That poor people have more tenacity for solving their own problems than most people give them credit for.' Can you elaborate on that statement, particularly with respect to Native peoples efforts to rebuild their nations?"
Mankiller: "Sure, let me preface my remarks by saying that my family participated in the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program, which was really a poorly disguised attempt to remove Native people from their homelands and that's how we ended up in San Francisco for twenty years. And the better life the Bureau of Indian Affairs promised us was actually a very rough housing project. What I learned living in a housing project in San Francisco which was predominantly African American is that people took care of each other in that community which was very isolated, and is still isolated, the housing project is called Hunter's Point, the people helped one another and that's how they got by in life. And what I saw in my own community before we left home, I was ten when we left Oklahoma and went to San Francisco, and what I've seen since I've returned home is a strong sense of interdependence in our community, and then in other communities that I've become aware of as well. People from Mexico, Central and South America, people that live in many of those communities have that same sense of responsibility for one another and interdependence. In our communities, there are always people who have formal leadership positions and titles and then there are the go-to people that folks gravitate toward when there is a crisis. And there are many people in our communities and in all low income communities that have great capacity for leadership, and I believe that community revitalization efforts can never be successful unless they begin at the grassroots level with families who know their community better than anything, outsiders who want to help a community with whatever project – whether its getting a water system or housing or health care or whatever, may have ideas about how to do that, but its never going to be successful if its conceptualized in a vacuum outside the community. For projects to be successful, they have to come from the people and because, you know you can be an expert in anything, there are a lot of smart people at this University, but people who live in low income communities are experts in their community. So the idea is to get a partnership between people who may have external resources and people in the community and then with that partnership they can move forward."
Q: "Really what you're talking about is solutions from within, solutions from the ground up, solutions from not just -- as you said, people in elected positions -- but local community leadership. How important is that? When you look across Indian Country and you work in Indian Country and you see some Indian communities very much dependent on the federal government to change things or they expect their tribal governments to do it all. And you're essentially saying that the spirit of interdependence, the spirit of local solutions in the community, is really what change needs to happen."
Mankiller: "I think that all of that is part of a process of trusting your own thinking. I think if you trust your own thinking and you truly believe that within the cultural context of your tribal community that you can rebuild your nation then you can. Part of what's happened over centuries of oppression is that our people came to rely on the federal government or the Bureau of Indian Affairs or well-meaning social workers to try to tell us how we should be and to provide things for us. And what's happened I think in the last few decades is that people are saying, 'No! We can articulate our own needs and we actually have the skills to be able to make, to solve those problems, and make our dreams a reality.' So at the very outset of trying to do something – and I think you have to have a sense of self-efficacy – all these people are always going around to tribal communities with these hot shot business ideas and these other kinds of things, well you know what, you're not going to get there until you do the basic work first. And the basic work first I think is working with people and making sure that people trust their own thinking first and have a strong sense of self-efficacy and believe in themselves. And once they believe in themselves and have that strong sense then they can do anything; they can move forward with that. It's pretty easy to do that. People often ask my husband and I how we got people in rural communities to volunteer to build their own houses and water systems and that sort of thing. All we did was trust people; it's that simple. I mean, not trust idly; it was an absolute trust. Can't read and write, it doesn't matter. If you have other skills; maybe the guy who can't read and write in the community is the best repairman of heavy equipment and can keep the waterline going. There's a role for everybody. Maybe someone in the community is a good writer, who can help write grants. There's a role for everybody. So trust in your own thinking I think is key to that."
Q: "Really what you're getting at is that rebuilding Native Nations, moving those nations forward, forging a common vision is really dependent on broad ownership in that process, it cant just be a top-down solution."
Mankiller: "Absolutely. Before I returned home, I did some work to prepare people for the 1977 treaty conference in Geneva, we were sending lots of Native people to Geneva. And it was interesting, but for me working on sovereignty in an international legal concept is one piece of work that's important. But, for me, if you're going to talk about sovereignty, you have to bring the people with you; you can't be just tribal leaders talking to each other, and academics talking to each other about sovereignty. It has to be with families too, it has to begin with families. And so what we're describing here is a part of that process."
Q: "Getting back to your personal story, I'm going to move now to 1969. It's well known that you took part in the Indians of All Tribes takeover of Alcatraz Island. And you credited that experience with giving you more self-respect and a sense of pride. How did that change your life, that experience?"
Mankiller: "Well, it profoundly changed my life. I was a young house wife married to an Ecuadorian kind of living a middle class life in San Francisco. And when I took the boat over to Alcatraz – my brothers and sisters had gone over to join the occupation – and when I took the boat over to Alcatraz it was like an act of revolution almost to do that, to say, 'You know, I'm an adult.' And when I got there and I met leaders like Richard Oakes and John Trudell and many other people there and they articulated things that I had felt, but didn't know how to express. And they talked about the fundamental rights of tribal governments and the conditions in tribal communities around the country, in a way that was very strong. It was the first time I had ever seen Native people stand up and stare down the United States government. Of course that had a profound impact on me. And because I had all these feelings running around, but didn't know quite how to express them, so they expressed for me a lot of the things that I felt. And of course at the San Francisco Indian Center I had heard people talking about the relocation program and a lot of other issues, but not in the way these young people spoke about them. Richard Oakes who was Mohawk, and the first leader, was very articulate and very clear about the fundamental rights of tribal government."
Q: "Delving more deeply into this issue of community ownership and rebuilding communities, in the 1970s you returned to Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation. Can you tell us about your early work with the Cherokee community of Bell and specifically the lessons that community can teach other Native Nations about the importance of tribal citizens taking ownership in rebuilding their communities?"
Mankiller: "Okay, the Bell community in the early "˜70s and late "˜70s was a predominantly Cherokee community, a bilingual community. About 95 percent of the population was Cherokee, there were a few non-Native families there. About 25 percent had no indoor plumbing. Very dilapidated housing. There was a local school there that was getting ready to close because young families were all moving out. And it's one of dozens of small Cherokee communities within the Cherokee Nation that are more traditional communities. And they had been trying to get housing and they couldn't get housing without a decent water system. So we decided that we could do a self-help project there. The idea was conceptualized not by me, it was conceptualized by Ross Swimmer. And I was a staff person at that time, the idea of a self-help project. So because I had this idea about community people being able to lead and had been very vocal about that and about the tribe putting more resources into ideas like that, I was tapped to lead the project. So what we basically said to the community is, 'If you want this to happen, this is your community, this is your houses, this is your kids. And if you want this to happen, you're going to have to work on it.' And so we will, myself and my husband – my husband was my partner on this project, Charlie Soap – what we said to the people in the Bell community is that, 'We'll provide the technical assistance and the resources if you will physically build a waterline, I mean put the pipe in the ground, cover it up, build it. And we will get the materials for some new homes and solar panels and we'll rehab some homes in this community, get the resources to do that if you'll do the work.' And this was a radical idea at that time, so they were saying: 'Why do we have to do that? The people down the road, the Indian Health Service builds their waterline and the Housing Authority builds their houses. Why should we do that?' And so we went through a process for about a year of meetings and talking and working with people to see that, so that they saw, not just us, but that they saw that it was in their best interest to do that. And that by rebuilding, physically rebuilding their community they would also rebuild a sense of control over their lives. The sense that we had when we went to the first meeting in Bell where almost nobody showed up by the way, the sense we had was that people thought: 'Aw things have always been like this, they're always going to be like that. A lot of people have promised to help us. It's not going to happen.' So we had to go from that point to a point where people believed that they actually could learn how to build their own waterline, they could rebuild their community, that things could be better, that the future could be better. So over a period of meetings, it was a long process of meetings, and that tapped into the values of the community. We got people to the point where they believed they could build the water system. Outsiders often focus on what the problems the community had when we started there, but we saw assets too. When we went into the community, the people who fished would share their fish with people in the community, people who hunted would share what they got with people who needed it, and during winter, if older people needed wood for their stoves, people would still get it for them. And so what we did was pretty simple. We just tapped into what we saw already existing there. Outside people said to us at that time, 'Well a lot of people in that community are on welfare. They won't even work for a living. How do you expect them to volunteer to do these things?' Well, there's no place to work. If there was a place to work, I'm sure they would, but there's no place to work there. And so, we felt confident that people would rise to the occasion and build their own water systems and rehab and build their own houses because of what we saw in the community there, despite the problem. And so for me, the first day when we started building the water line, we had organized for a year and divided the water line project into sections so that each family had responsibility for a certain section. Driving down into the Bell community the first day, it was a pretty big deal because for me, it affirmed everything I believed about poor people. I always believed that poor people would rise to the occasion if you partnered with them. And so when I turned the corner and I saw all the people standing there getting ready to start the waterline, it affirmed for me my fundamental belief that we can rebuild our communities and we can rebuild our nations. To me Bell, a little tiny community within the Cherokee Nation, is symbolic of our nations, our people themselves stood on a porch and decided that they could rebuild their community themselves and they did it. And I believe that our leaders can get together and decide that they can rebuild their nations and they can do it."
Q: "In 1985, you became the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation after your predecessor Ross Swimmer stepped down to become the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. You subsequently won two elections for principal chief, the second with 82 percent of the vote before leaving office in 1985. Among other accomplishments during your tenure, you oversaw the Cherokee Nation's historic Self-Determination Agreement with the federal government whereby the Cherokee Nation took over control of Nation programs and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. How important was that step in advancing the Cherokee Nation's efforts to rebuild their Nation and achieve self-sufficiency?"
Mankiller: "Let me start by talking about my election. I was actually elected in 1983 to Deputy Chief position; Ross Swimmer didn't appoint me. I don't think he would have appointed me, given that his entire tribal council opposed me. And so I ran for Deputy Chief in 1983 and was elected to that position so when he left in 1985, I automatically assumed his position. But, with regard to self-determination, it was critical. I began my first work in tribal government as a volunteer for the Pit River Tribe in northern California which didn't take any federal funding. So I was a strong believer that tribe's should be able to allocate their own resources and make their own decisions about the needs of their people. So during the self-determination era, we took advantage of that every step of the way. And I was in the planning department when we first started contracting tribal programs. So there was a sea change from the time I began working for the tribal government in 1977 to the time that we signed our first self-governance agreement. And I had had a kidney transplant and I was in a hospital in Boston when our first self-governance agreement needed to be signed, and I insisted that they Fedex it to me; I got out of my bed and set out and signed that self-governance agreement because I considered it so critical and so important for our people."
Q: "Following up on that, how did accountability change when you took over your own programs? Often in Indian Country, you see when the outsiders are calling the shots, when they screw up their not around to pay the consequences, it's the local people. How did the feeling of accountability change when the Cherokee Nation took over?"
Mankiller: "For us, I don't think it changed that much. We always felt very accountable and we always just dealt with whatever we had to deal with. We were very accustomed to having federal audits and that sort of thing. And so I don't think that it fundamentally changed the way we did business. We understood that we couldn't make the Bureau of Indian Affairs a scapegoat anymore. So I'm not sure that it changed that much; I found that most tribal governments are very accountable and set up their own systems for making sure that the funds get appropriated and allocated for the things that they were destined to be appropriated for. And so I'm not sure that made a fundamental change."
Q: "Okay. In 1976, the Cherokee Nation's Constitution was ratified and just two decades later however, the Nation initiated a major overhaul of that constitution which culminated in the ratification of significant reforms just a few years ago. What compelled the Cherokee Nation to undertake constitutional reform and what were the major outcomes?"
Mankiller: "I think there was a period of time after I left office, and I didn't run for office again, there was a four-year period when there was a great deal of debate and controversy within the Cherokee Nation. And I think the idea of reforming the constitution came out of that whole controversial era. I'm not sure that our model is the best model for anyone to follow; there's some lessons people can learn from what we did. My feeling is that the constitution reform efforts, recent constitutional reform efforts, did not come from the people, they came from outside the communities. And my sense – I live in a Cherokee community and my husband works in Cherokee communities – and so we're in that part of the Cherokee Nation, I'm not sure all the constitutional amendments were properly vetted or necessarily understood and completely supported by people. If you look at the hearings that they conducted around the Cherokee Nation, there wasn't wide attendance at those hearings. So I guess if there's a lesson for other tribal governments, if you're going to do constitutional change, and make sure that the people that will be directly affected by the constitutional changes fully and completely...Take your time. Take your time. Changing a constitution is a major thing. Don't rush into it. And look at each amendment separately and make sure that people completely and thoroughly understand it before putting it out there."
Q: "And part of the constitutional reform process that the Cherokee Nation employed involved the Cherokee Constitutional Convention. And that's essentially a permanent body that periodically reviews the Constitution. How important is that, I mean you talked about 'take your time,' and is that part of that focus on taking your time?"
Mankiller: "It is, but I think again it depends on whose involved in the Constitutional Convention. If you're going to have a constitutional convention of opinion leaders and political leaders and that sort of thing, that's one thing. But, if you want a broad citizen participation, then you need a different kind of convention. So, in a tribe as large as ours, a single constitutional convention is not going to get it. There would have to be constitutional conventions in lots of different places with lots of different populations. So again, the lesson I think from our experiences is to have broad participation and take it very slowly and have a great deal of discussion before putting it up for a vote."
Q: "Because essentially what you need to do by taking it slowly is get that community behind it, which doesn't happen overnight. [Mankiller: 'Absolutely, absolutely.'] Since you became principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985, Indigenous Country has witnessed a surge in the number of females assuming elected leadership positions in their nations. What, from your perspective, do you feel is driving that trend?"
Mankiller: "I think that there are more pipeline opportunities for women. As tribal governments grow and expand and contract their own hospitals and run their own school systems and run their own businesses, that there are more opportunities for women to administer programs. And they're in highly visible places. They get to work within tribal government and know tribal government and become known in the community. And so, there are more opportunities for women to lead within the tribe and then some go from an administrative position to running for council and then running for top leadership positions. And I think that education is a factor; I think that more Native women are getting an education, and more Native women are taking advantage of administrative and leadership opportunities within tribal government."
Q: "We've already talked about this issue, but I want to ask you a question directly on point. You once said that, 'I want to be remembered as the person who helped us restore faith in ourselves.' Why is this restoration of faith and self so important to securing a vibrant self-determining future for the Cherokee Nation?"
Mankiller: "Well, when I hear that quote I cringe because it sounds very self-important, so I actually hate that quote. But I do believe that an essential part of leadership is, besides all the things like making sure you're working on legislative issues and legal issues and health and education and jobs and all that sort of thing, is to try to help people understand their own history and understand where we are within the context of that history and to believe in ourselves; to look at our past and see what we've done as a people and to remind people that if they want to see our future they just simply need to look at our past to believe in ourselves, to believe in our intellectual ability, to believe in our skills, to believe in our ability to think up solutions to our own problems. I think that is critical to our survival."
Q: "Following up on that, what you're really talking about is leaders not just as decision-makers, leaders engaging their citizens, teaching their citizens about what's possible as you talked about, but also learning from citizens and really engaging them in this rebuilding process."
Mankiller: "Well, I think good leaders make decisions based on information they've received from their people. And leadership should be about listening to people, especially listening to people who differ from you and have very different ideas than you do, and then taking the ideas of the people and synthesizing them and then figuring out how to move forward. Leaders who make unilateral decisions and charge ahead I don't think are good leadership. Good leadership is consultative and good leadership simply means listening to people. And what I tried to do very diligently when I was in office is to set up regular community meetings and I learned a lot more about what was going on in our tribal government in those community meetings then I did by listening to the staff. And so I think that for me the idea of listening is key to good leadership."
Q: "Moving on, the Cherokee Nation has received multiple awards from the Honoring Nations Program of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development including one for its Cherokee Nation history course, which is mandatory for all new Nation employees, and one for its Cherokee language revitalization project, which seeks to revitalize the Cherokee language by focusing on Cherokee youth. Why did the Cherokee Nation develop these two programs and what role do they play in the Nation's rebuilding efforts?"
Mankiller: "Well, I think that the history course is just critical. And again I think that for all of us we live busy lives and everyone goes to school and receives a good education, but not that many people have the opportunity to learn about the legal and the political and the cultural history of their own people. And so, the history course provides a historical and cultural context for the current work of staff and members of the Cherokee Nation. It's a very popular course. I think it's important to understand our context and where we've been in order to figure out how to move forward. And then with the language revitalization program that was started because less than ten thousand people of our tribal membership is still fluent in the Cherokee language. And I think that our current chief felt that there needed to be some radical intervention at all levels and so they're teaching Cherokee language in the preschool programs, in the public schools, there's a Cherokee language course at the local university, and encouraging community leaders to speak Cherokee as well. So I think they're both critical to our survival. If we get you know down the road five hundred years from now, and nobody remembers our history and nobody speaks our language, it's not going to be very healthy for our people. So this is a tip to make sure that five hundred years from now we'll still have a viable language and still have a sense of who we are as a people."
Q: "Pretend for a moment that I am a newly elected tribal leader who has been chosen to serve his nation for the first time. Drawing on your extensive experience as a tribal leader, what advice can you share to help empower me to rebuild my nation?"
Mankiller: "I think the best advice I would give is to develop teams of interdisciplinary teams of people to help you in problem-solving; don't try to do it by yourself. And to rely on people, not just on staff, but people in the community to help you solve big problems. I think that that's very very important. The other thing is that I think it's important for leaders to remain focused. The mistake I see not just in tribal leaders, but in leaders in general whether they're leading a country or leading a parent committee, is that they try to do too many things. And so it's very important to say, 'What is it I want to accomplish during my term? What are the two or three major things that I want to accomplish during my term?' And then stay focused on them. We have such a daunting set of problems to face each day in tribal government that sometimes you can get sidetracked and the little things take up as much time as the big things and so it's important to remain focused; that's another thing I think is very very important. The other thing is I think there needs to be kind of a seamlessness between – this is just a personal thing – between your personal life and your professional life. Indian Country is a very small place and within a tribe it's even smaller, so that you can't mistreat women, for example, and then be in a leadership position of leading women. So I think that people expect their leaders to conduct themselves in a certain way and it's important to do that. I had the privilege of working with Peterson Zah, President of the Navajo Nation, and he is just a great example of a family man, a grandfather, someone who always conducted himself with just great dignity and great respect and I think that that's important too to remember when you're in leadership its not about you, you represent people and always keep the faces of those people in your head when you go someplace, you're representing them and when you speak, you're speaking for them. I think that's important as well."
Q: "You talked about the importance of leaders focusing on the big picture and not getting sidetracked with the little things. How important are rules and specifically, rules that clearly define the boundaries of your position, how important is that to empowering leaders to be able to focus on the big picture? Because oftentimes, among some Native Nations where the rules aren't clearly defined, the council feels particular, the council or chief executives feel like they have to do everything because there's no rules or boundaries set to keep them focused on the big picture."
Mankiller: "Right, I think that the single most important aspect of that is for there to be a clear role for the executive officer, whether it's a principal chief or chairman of a business committee, and a clear role for the tribal council. One thing that helped me was that those roles weren't fuzzy. We had three branches of government, the tribal council had a very clear legislative role and they also had a role for fiscal oversight and budgetary issues, and then my role was to manage, and the courts had their role. And so I think that having a clearly defined role is critical, very critical. And if people don't have that now, I would encourage them to work very hard to make that happen. I can't imagine having to make decisions by committee you know, consult people, work with them, but not having fifteen or twenty different people trying to make a decision."
Q: "These days you're dedicating a lot of your time and energy to raising awareness about the importance of Native Nations, providing the mainstream media and the general public a clear balanced picture of contemporary Native America. In particular, the amazing stories of success, innovation and renaissance that are taking place across Indigenous Country. Why is this educational effort so critical to Native Nations ability to achieve their nation-building goals?"
Mankiller: "It's critical because even after hundreds of years of living in our former towns and villages, most Americans don't know anything about us and there's not accurate information about Native people in the popular culture, there's not accurate information about Native people in literature, there's not accurate information in secondary schools and universities. And because there's so little accurate information about Native people, a lot of nonsensical stereotypes get developed. And because of those stereotypes, every time a tribal leader goes to the United States Congress and particularly for new members of Congress, they have to educate them about the history of Native people in this country. And so there's still a number of people who want us to be like we were three hundred years ago or something. And so I think that it's critical; I actually see shaping public perception as a sovereignty protection issue because I believe very strongly that public perception shapes public policy and that unless we take control of our own image and help frame our own issues and change the image of our people, that it will ultimately affect public policy."
Conclusion: "Well Wilma, I'd like to thank you very much for joining us today. I've learned a great deal and I'm sure our audience has as well. That's all for today's program of Leading Native Nations, produced by the Native Nations Institute and Arizona Public Media at the University of Arizona. To learn more about this program and Wilma Mankiller and her inspirational story, please visit the Native Nations Institute's website at www.nni.arizona.edu. Thank you for joining us. Copyright 2008 Arizona Board of Regents."